Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

11: Family contact (2019)

Standard 11:

Every prisoner is encouraged and facilitated to maintain positive family and close significant relationships.

Rationale:

Children and families affected by imprisonment are often referred to as the ‘hidden’ or ‘forgotten’ victims of crime. While families and children have committed no crime themselves, they are punished indirectly for the actions of their parent or family member. Children have the right to maintain regular and direct contact with their parent.[226] Every member of the family maintains a right to family life.[227] Maintaining positive family contact is also a crucial factor in the rehabilitation and desistance process.

Current context:

All stakeholders such as the police, judiciary, prison staff and media should promote the rights of children and families affected by imprisonment, with particular reference to the basic principles of the CoE’s (2018) recommendation on children of imprisoned parents.[228]

While no data have been published on the number of children affected by parental imprisonment, there were 239,769 visitors to the prison estate in 2018, of whom 50,592 were categorised as children.[229] Furthermore it has been reported that this information is now being collated by prison governors upon committal to prison.[230] The importance of supporting children affected by parental imprisonment was recognised in a 2019 Dáil debate on educational supports for children experiencing homelessness:

While it is very important to look at the needs of those who are vulnerable and in emergency accommodation, we cannot forget about the needs of those children coming into school from very unsuitable accommodation and overcrowded accommodation, from homes where the parents have problems with addiction or are in prison.[231]

The experiences of children and families are rarely under the spotlight. Yet the Mountjoy Prison Visiting Committee has highlighted repeated reports of family members being demeaned by staff on entry to the prison.[232] Currently, visitors can make complaints to the IPS under ‘Category E’ complaints.[233] However, the number of families/ significant others making complaints is not collated.[234]

According to the Seventh Report of the IOG, a policy on visiting conditions standards by the National Families and Imprisonment Group is to be provided by Quarter 2 of 2019.[235] The report identified other positive developments, including new parenting support programmes commencing in Midlands, Portlaoise and Castlerea prisons.[236]

The IPS also reports that the Family Links Programme is to be rolled out to all prisons and that family liaison officer training is to be provided to IPS staff.[237]

Indicators for Standard:

Indicators for Standard 11

Indicator S11.1: Availability of child-friendly visiting conditions across the prison estate.

In 2018, the Minister for Justice and Equality stated that all prisons have child-friendly visiting conditions.[238]

Indicator S11.2: Regular family contact, specifically via phone calls, video-conferencing and contact visits.

Between August 2018 and July 2019, 227 prisoner video calls to their families took place.[239] The IPS also plans to further roll out video conference units and to further develop the use of ‘virtual’ visits.[240]

Indicator S11.3: Access to evening and weekend visits across the prison estate.

No prison in Ireland allows evening visits for children and families/significant others.[241] Certain prisons (Wheatfield, Shelton Abbey, Portlaoise, Mountjoy, Limerick, Loughan House, Dóchas, Cloverhill, Castlerea and Arbour Hill) do facilitate Saturday visits, however.[242] No Saturday visits take place in Midlands Prison. The only prisons that facilitate Sunday visits are the Dóchas Centre (female), Shelton Abbey, Loughan House, Castlerea and Cloverhill.[243] The IPS has stated that visiting times have been reviewed in order to better facilitate school-going children.[244]

Indicator S11.4: Supports for children affected by parental imprisonment.

No specific supports or strategy for children affected by parental imprisonment have been developed or led by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. However, Bedford Row Family Project and Limerick Prison were awarded the ‘Investing in Children’ services award for 2019–2020.[245]

Analysis

Thousands of children and families are affected by imprisonment on an annual basis. There are a number of practical issues that impact on maintaining family contact. These include inflexible visiting hours and the financial costs associated with travelling to prison. IPRT welcomes positive developments such as the review of visiting hours for school-going children. In 2015, the CPT invited the Irish authorities to examine the possibility of providing financial assistance to those female prisoners who do not have the necessary means to maintain regular contact with their dependent children. To IPRT’s knowledge, no scheme has been made available.

The national policy on visiting conditions standards by the National Families and Imprisonment Group is expected to be published in 2019.[246] These standards and an assessment of same would provide further insight into what is required to ensure child- and family-friendly conditions and good practice in Irish prisons.

There is currently no national strategy or supports for children affected by parental imprisonment. More needs to be done on recognising the needs of these children as a distinct group. In this respect, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs should take the lead in promoting the rights and supporting the needs of children affected by parental imprisonment.

Status of Standard 11: Mixed

Progressive Practice:

Family contact

A new UK report on strengthening relationships between female offenders and others recognises the importance of family visits.[247] It makes recommendations to support contact between women and their children including the use of technology such as in-cell phones and greater use of temporary release.

However, recommendations made extend beyond the criminal justice system, with the report suggesting that investment is needed in women’s centres, domestic abuse services and other community services. The author Lord Farmer made a wide number of recommendations, including: making significant improvements to the Assisted Prisons Visits scheme; developing a family-related prison performance measure; and having an on-site social worker in every prison and the roll-out of virtual visits.

Actions required:

Action 11.1: The Department of Children and Youth Affairs should lead on the development of a national strategy for supporting children affected by parental imprisonment.
Action 11.2: The IPS should publish a national policy on visiting standards for children and families affected by imprisonment by Quarter 2 of 2020; this policy should include a performance measure on supporting family contact.

References:

Irish Penal Reform Trust

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